Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Cookbook Theory of Economics

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Cookbook Theory of Economics

Article excerpt

WHEN WAS THE last time you came home hungry after a long day of work and reached for that Chadian cookbook? Could you even name a dish from Chad? It's not that Chadian food is lousy. Anyone who has had its dish of gently stewed beef with ground peanuts atop rice would agree it's delicious. So why is it that some countries' cuisines are world famous and others are largely unknown? I've eaten splendid food from Honduras to Yemen and many countries in between, though you'd be hard-pressed to find a good Yemeni restaurant in most Western cities, much less a decent cookbook telling you how to prepare mutafayyah--fish braised in a spicy tomato paste--or how to master the finer points of making the layered, eggy Yemeni bread mutabaqiah.

Just try looking for foreign cookbooks in any American bookstore: The shelves will be littered with French and Italian fare, East Asian and Indian selections, and a smattering from places south of the equator. The very geography tells a story: Call it the cookbook indicator of economic development.

First consider global cuisines like Mexican or Chinese. You can find a handful of good cookbooks pretty much anywhere these days. It's not just that we're all suckers for guacamole or stir-fry. It's development economics in practice--a foodie measure of how much these societies have moved toward greater commercialization, large-scale production, and standardization of production processes. Quite simply, it's the recipe for economic progress.

I recall a trip a few years ago to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I was surprised to find that virtually all restaurants were Chinese or Indian. They were excellent, but still I wanted some local food. In a fit of desperation, I paid the maid to make me a Tanzanian dish in the hotel kitchen, a kind of improvised room service, with a large tip attached. I ended up with a sort of porridge that looked quite simple but tasted delicious. As I was enjoying the meal, it occurred to me that writing down the recipe wouldn't do much good, as I wouldn't be able to reproduce it at home. The grain--perhaps a maize flour or millet --was unfamiliar, and the rest of the local ingredients were fresher and more delicious than anything I could easily get my hands on at home in Fairfax, Virginia. A recipe like "cook grain; add water and salt" wouldn't get me far, not even with Whole Foods at my disposal. I'm a fan of East African food, but I haven't seen this dish since. Even Google does not yield many useful leads for Tanzanian restaurants in the United States, and Amazon lists just three Tanzanian cookbooks, availability limited. Clearly, Tanzanian cuisine doesn't extend far beyond the country's borders.

Geography and circumstance play a role in this: Countries blessed with good soil and home to stable agrarian societies tend to develop richer and more interesting food culture than nomadic societies from hardscrabble lands. Take China and Turkmenistan, which are roughly similar in GDP per capita but on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to contributions to the world's culinary tradition. We owe kung pao chicken and mapo tofu--not to mention thousands of other dishes perfected over thousands of years--to China's natural bounty, culture of trading, and historically prosperous, literate, and farming society. Not being landlocked helps too.

So does textbook development economics. Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I've seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). …

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